For the past week or so, there’s a subject that’s been eating at my mind, trying to form itself into a coherent blog post. It would seem that the nexus of today’s news has called for this subject to become more solid. Fans are erupting over little Leicester City winning the English Premier League. After apparently gutting their journalist news department, the CEO of one of New Zealand’s biggest media companies has resigned in a storm of controversy. And amidst all of the Facebook fluff about May the 4th being with me, there was a little pointed reminder that May 4th is also the anniversary of the Kent State “riots” which resulted in the shooting deaths of four anti-war protesters. There’s no real connection between these three things, except that lately I’ve been thinking a lot about soccer, and how news media can be manipulated, and the ways in which we vilify our underclass.
Let me explain.
Last Tuesday, a very important inquest was wound up in the UK. It had taken two arduous years of testimony, but the verdict came a full 27 years after the event so many of the victims’ families had grown accustomed to the pain of justice delayed. The inquest was decided by a jury, and on several key points their verdict was shattering. 96 people died in a crowd crush at the Hillsborough football stadium on 15 April 1989. Their deaths were determined to be unlawful and not accidental (i.e. manslaughter). They, and their fellow fans in attendance at the game that day, were not at fault.
The news caused a big but momentary splash in the British media, but when I went looking for it I found it was buried pretty deep on Australasian and American media sites. Like many who were alive at the time, I remember witnessing the original footage of the Hillsborough disaster on the TV. Therefore the verdict carried a small emotional weight for me, on behalf of the horrified 11-year-old I once was. However it seemed that so long after the fact, most media outlets were willing to let the verdict sit as a vaguely interesting footnote, beneath more important things like Trump’s wife’s benighted half-brother, and Beyonce’s husband’s implied affairs.
Yet Hillsborough was then (and continues to be) a massively important historical event. The choices and attitudes that created this tragedy were part of a social change that swept the world in the 1980s, and we continue to reap the whirlwind of those changes to this day.
I accept that, as with many movements of history, the people inside them often can’t see them until several generations pass. But just as World War I came from a nexus of political tension and empire-building, entirely unique to its own time; Hillsborough wouldn’t have happened in the 1960s or even the 1970s. I’d venture to suggest that it could still happen today, but the powers above would be a little more clever in how they condemned the dead for their own mortality.
The facts of the case are actually quite simple:
- Hillsborough football stadium had concrete terraces below the grandstands, where fans could pay for a cheaper ticket in exchange for standing to watch the game. To mitigate the danger of pitch invasions, these terraces were enclosed in steel cages, with fencing that angled inward over people’s heads to prevent them climbing over and onto the field.
- The FA Cup Semi-Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest was well subscribed, but access into the stadium via Leppings Lane was restrictive and ten minutes before kick-off there were still thousands of fans outside the stadium trying to get in. Meanwhile, the terrace cages labelled as Pen 3 and Pen 4 (right in front of the Lepping’s Lane turnstiles, directly behind the goal and set aside for Liverpool fans) were already full. The safety certificate for the stadium later turned out to be years out of date, with the capacity of the pens grossly over-stated at 2,200. Barriers within the pens should have seen this revised down to 1,600. (This link provides several photos showing crowd both outside and inside the stadium, as well as access tunnel to the pens)
- Just eight minutes from kick-off, the Police commander in charge of operations at the game, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, ordered that an exit gate next to the Lepping’s Lane turnstiles should be opened in order to let the crowd outside the stadium flow in more quickly. Access to Pen 3 and Pen 4 was not cut off, and the crowd moving down the tunnel under the grandstands were unaware of what was happening in the pens. It’s estimated that 3,000 people flooded into Pen 3 and Pen 4 within a few minutes.
- Despite at least one Police Officer asking that the game be delayed in order to give more time for the fans to enter the stadium in a controlled fashion, the game started on time at 3pm, causing fans to push even further forward in order to try and get out of the tunnel so they could see the match. Five minutes later, a metal barrier in Pen 3 collapsed under the crush of people.
- Still thinking they were dealing with a potential pitch invasion or riot, the Police stopped the game but also tried to push escaping fans back into the cages. Even as injured and dead people were being pulled out of the crush, fire fighters and ambulances were prevented from getting to the pitch as Police cited that they were having “crowd trouble”. Of the 42 ambulances that attended the call-out, only 4 reached the field and only 2 reached the Lepping’s Lane end.
- 96 people died – aged from 67 to just 10 years old. Only 14 of those fatalities were ever admitted to hospital. Witnesses later testified that many died after having been brought out of the cages and laid on the field, possibly due to the lack of medical attention available. Fans resorted to ripping down advertising hoardings to use as stretchers so they could carry the injured out of the stadium. Many were directed to a gymnasium, where there was no medical staff and the dead were simply laid out to be catalogued by Police.
- Almost immediately after the tragedy, Ch Supt Duckenfield blamed drunken fans for forcing open the gate on Lepping’s Lane and storming the stadium (something he later admitted he’d actually ordered). In the following years, over a hundred witness statements were deliberately altered by Police before being submitted into evidence on various inquiries. Four days after the disaster, an infamous issue of The Sun newspaper ran a front page story claiming that drunken and rowdy fans had picked the pockets of the dead, and beaten up or urinated on the Police who were trying to save people. All of these allegations were later found to be completely false.